A Primer on Paganism

Nicholas Cage and Ellen Burstyn -- some serious star power for the remake of an odd, cultish (figuratively and literally) low-budget '70s British horror film -- but that is what's opening this weekend at theaters nationwide.

The rough plot of "The Wicker Man" is a very Christian policeman who investigates a missing girl on a very remote island.

The locals are very secretive, and practice a very twisted version of pagan rituals -- and I don't want to give away the end of the film, but suffice it to say that the policeman is in for a surprise.

The movie plays on a tension between Christianity and Paganism, throws in some sexually provocative scenes and, voila, you've got a "classic."

Pagan, in Latin, means from the country or rural citizen, so before you get the idea that it is all about animal sacrifice and devil worship, realize that most indigenous religions are by definition pagan -- the word doesn't carry any of those stereotypes in its definition.

It is also important to keep in mind that while we look at paganism, our piece looked at one branch, Wicca -- and that there are several sub-branches of practices and faiths. One thing both the witches we spoke to in the piece strongly agree on is that there is no devil worship or human sacrifice in their craft, and that there never will be.

Paganism flourished in the 1970s and '80s and according to a religious studies professor in California there could be anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 people who practice the faith around the United States.

Pagan rituals like the burning of effigies to send a message to the powers that be are still practiced today -- take for example the annual Burning Man festival, which is currently under way in the Nevada desert.

Some branches of pagans are polytheistic, some aren't, some follow the Wicca tradition, some are Dianic, some are Gardnerian -- there are several flavors.

I didn't know much, if anything, about witchcraft, except for the cheeky stereotypes I'd grown accustomed to from Halloween and caricatures of what a witch ought to look like from cartoons and movies.

So for the piece our crew wandered into the hills of upstate New York, to meet the Wiccan witch of Woodstock -- and as I say in the piece, the only thing wicked about her is her sense of humor.

Susun Weed is a high priestess in the Dianic tradition, a branch that reveres the Goddess energy.

She says that the celebration of the female is something that draws young people to her practice, because it is at its very core, empowering women.

Weed said witches were women of power all through the ages and have always been scapegoated. From the inquisition to the Salem witch trials, they were targeted by organized religion and others who were interested in suppressing their power.

Hundreds of years ago a man could mix chemicals and be considered a scientist, if a woman was to make potions with herbs she would be considered a witch.

Once condemned, a witch would have to pay for her jailor, her judge and even the wood that burned her at the stake.

It was a great scam for the state or the church in power to reclaim property that a woman might have owned.

Another reason that witches suffered persecution, Weed said, was because of their seeming immortality.

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